In the Indian Express article titled “It’s Time to Do Away With ‘Tam-Brahm”, the author Ms. Sharanya Manivannan, rants about an incident from her mid-twenties when an inebriated person in a night-club asked her if she was a “Tam-Brahm”. She uses this incident to launch into a tirade about the audacity of Tamil Brahmins to refer to themselves as “Tam-Brahm”. In short she asks, how dare Tamil Brahmins use a term that reminds people that we have not been stamped out of existence? Especially, when people in Tamilnadu have worked so hard to do just that?
It is important to note that when this inebriated woman asked the author if she was Tam-Brahm, she did not follow it up with any words that implied that she was disappointed that the author was not Tam-Brahm. There is no indication that this question rose because the woman thought Tamil Brahmins are “upper-caste” or superior in any way.
Now let us imagine a similar scenario. An intoxicated Christian asks someone with a name like “Akila” if she is a Christian. Before Akila responds, someone else says, “No, her name is Akila Malik, Christians do not use names like Malik”. Such an incident would have been forgotten and never thought of again. Akila would not be outraged and would not construe the innocent question to be “a subtle act of aggression”. That’s because admitting that you belong to a group whose identity is Christian is alright and you are even allowed to be proud of it. But God forbid someone admits to an identity of being Brahmin! So many people believe that Brahmins do not even have that right. We Brahmins are secondary citizens because of the sins of our fathers. Our ancestors did bad things and so we should quietly subject to being belittled, degraded and ripped of our identity for all eternity.
As a Tam-Brahm, I and many like me have been treated with this contemptuous attitude all of our lives. We have been ridiculed and bullied all through our lives because we were born in a Brahmin family. Like the author mentions, I did nothing to earn being called a Brahmin, just like she did nothing to earn her surname. Yet, it is fine for her to use her surname to identify herself, but she self-righteously condemns my use of my identity as a Tam-Brahm.
She says that she was struck that “a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly”. I think the key word here is “intoxication” and the implication is that Brahmins shouldn’t even admit to their identity in a state of intoxication. Can you imagine the outrage if the person wasn’t intoxicated?
Personally, I have noticed that many of the young people (in urban social settings) who riot that Brahmins should be eternally ashamed of their heritage are those who did not grow up in Tamilnadu during the last 50 years. They were raised abroad and are lucky to have been brought up “caste-oblivious”. Brahmins like me who grew up in Tamilnadu in the last 50 years never had that luxury. We were constantly reminded that we belonged to the caste-that-should-not-be-named; the caste that is constantly picked-on; the caste that is freely made fun of in movies, songs, and dramas. This is because we are the caste that doesn’t retaliate and, we are the caste that does not have the right to retaliate. We were forced to grow up feeling ashamed of our heritage and downright scared to reveal our identity as a Brahmin. I grew up hating my first name because it revealed that I am a Brahmin, as if just being born a Brahmin was an unforgivable sin. It took me years to become comfortable in my identity as a Brahmin and stop worrying about my name. I wrote a blog post about that more than a year ago.
Tam-Brahms are derogatorily called “thayir sadam, namam, pattai, parpan, pappathi, mamis” and so on. If we were ever to use such word for a person based on their caste, we could face criminal procedures. I recall an incident from my early teen years where a stranger threatened to report my father to the police for calling him “lower-caste” when all my father did was to tell him not to touch me. So, I would like to know who really keeps casteism alive?
The author says that it is not incidental that “the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles” that she moves in is dominated by Brahmins. She does not know how many Brahmins are poor because she has not moved in those circles. It is also not incidental that she moves in circles dominated by Brahmins if she grew up abroad. That’s because most of us have been chased out of our homeland to earn a living just because we are Brahmins. I have heard it said that only those who have sinned have to leave their homeland and seek a living in other lands. So, this is another way by which we continue to pay for the sins of our ancestors. But, when does this debt end? Never, apparently. Most of us that leave the blessed shores of Tamilnadu for other countries end up staying abroad. Why? because in other countries we are not constantly judged by our names or our caste or our diet or our dialect or our other day-to-day practices and religious beliefs.
So, the next time you hear the term “Tam-Brahm”, please realize that we do not use it to subtly aggravate or make history more palatable. We do not use it to clarify our rank in a hierarchy of your imagination or to defend the caste system. We certainly do not say it to negate centuries of bigotry or embrace the same. Instead, we use it to feel solidarity in our oppression. We ask about it to find out if we can feel comfortable and safe in a group. We use to tell each other that we understand and to know that we have some things in common. We even use it to make fun ourselves. (Please feel free to peruse some of the Tam-Brahm communities on Facebook. You will find that the predominant theme is making fun of ourselves.) So, please stop attributing malice where there is none. We all use terms like Indians, Tamils, Chennaites and many such other names to identify ourselves in various circumstances and Tam-Brahm is just one other way.
We are so much more than what our ancestors did to others. That is exactly why it’s time to stop deriding us. Usually, all we ask is to live and let live. But this time, instead of choosing to remain invisible, I shall step up and say no. I am done paying the debt of my ancestors. I refuse to be stomped on for sins that I did not commit. I am Tam-Brahm and I am proud of it, because what the term means to me is not what it meant to my ancestors. So, start getting used to it; we Tam-Brahms are here to stay.
PS: Those who know me know that I am not one to air my personal views on controversial topics in public. But I did so this time, because the original article in the Indian Express upset me greatly. Thanks for all your support, friends.